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Going public

23.nov.05, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

23.nov.05, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Residents of North Vancouver can be excused if they were mildly freaked out.
On Nov. 12, 2005, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and District of North Vancouver hand-delivered boil-water advisories to 520 buildings warning residents to boil their water after a drinking-water sample tested positive for E. coli, which several media accounts claimed was the same bacteria that, in 2000, contaminated the water supply in Walkerton, Ont., killing seven people and sickening some 2,500.
Except it wasn't.
There are hundreds of different kinds of E. coli. The one most often associated with bad outcomes is E. coli O157:H7. E. coli triggers boil water advisories, but in this case, it appears to have been a false positive. Viviana Zanocco, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, stated the boil-water warning was highly unusual and was quoted as saying it was done as a precaution, noting, "it's better safe than sorry."
But is it?
In the post-Walkerton era, where the mythology of Canada as clean and green and home to pristine waters should be sufficiently shattered, boil water advisories have become common. So common that, in Ontario at least, boil-water advisories are issued routinely and a cry-wolf mentality has become firmly established.
But what about other food-related advisories?
On April 8, 2005, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control published a summary describing three outbreaks of Salmonella infections associated with eating Roma tomatoes in the U.S. and Canada in the summer of 2004. In the three outbreaks, 561 outbreak-related illnesses from 18 states, including seven cases in Ontario were identified.
The outbreaks received extensive coverage in the U.S. media in 2004 but nothing in Canada was ever publicly reported. We were informed of the seven Ontario cases at a food safety conference in 2004 by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration official. The Canadian regulatory types at the meeting denied any knowledge of the outbreak. Nothing was ever publicly documented about the Ontario cases until the 2005 CDC report. Thank you, America, for highlighting food safety issues in Canada. No one in Canada seems up to the task.
Canadian identity is rooted, it seems, in something that we are not;
American. When speaking to fellow hosers about food safety systems it is always fun to see the look of shock when it is suggested that the U.S. might just be better than we are at this. The U.S. is better, but they aren't perfect at this stuff, and they admit it. Conversely, Canadians are continuously caught in the belief that we have the safest food in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that up to one-in-three people in developed countries get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year. Thirty-three per cent is pretty good if you are hitting a baseball , OK if you're stopping hockey pucks, not so good if you are shooting basketball free-throws, but its simply unacceptable when it comes to public health.
Disputes about risks often make everyone unhappy—industry, regulators and the public. But this unhappiness is in large part due to the way in which risks must be presented, an incomplete knowledge full of maybes and caveats, probabilities rather than certainties. So how can the process, this communication about risk, be improved?
When potential or theoretical risks to human health emerge, risk managers face a frequently impossible question to empirically answer: at what point does sufficient evidence exist to inform the public in a meaningfully manner?
From a theoretical basis, research has established that an early release of information sets the pace for resolution of the problem, it may prevent similar situations elsewhere, and, most importantly, people are entitled to information that affects their lives.
Such early warnings can also build long-term trust. When Johnson and Johnson was told that someone was adding poisonous cyanide to bottles of Tylenol in 1982, the company did not wait for more science. They pulled all bottles of the pain-reliever from U.S. shelves and invested in research leading to tamper-proof containers. Within six months of the recall, sales had risen to new heights.
However, in other risk scenarios, there can be strong arguments for waiting. If risk managers go public about suspected risks, and are subsequently proven wrong, the public and media may perceive a particular risk as high when in reality the risk is minimal or nonexistent. This may have been the case in North Vancouver. This can also result in stigmatization of products and loss of trust and credibility of organizations and governments. For example, awareness and concern regarding bovine spongiform encephalapathy (mad cow disease) has increased dramatically since 1996, along with an increase in testing of suspected cases; should the public be informed of every suspect animal that is sent for testing, or should the public only be informed when a test is positive? And even timely messages are not enough. The message—what can consumers do—should not be contradictory. A few years ago, Health Canada proposed to ban the sale of cheeses derived from raw milk, but they failed to provide a compelling case for such a ban. They also ignored the cultural and social factors—the enjoyment—that lead some people to rank specific cheeses like fine wines. Raw milk cheeses can contain the bacterium Listeria which can cause life-threatening illness and lead to miscarriages, but such cases simply had not been seen in Canada (which does not mean such cases do not exist). This left health officials arguing that such cheeses should be banned, even in the absence of Canadian-based scientific evidence to warrant such a ban. The Minister of Health at the time was soon in Quebec, scarfing back raw milk cheese for the television cameras. People make risk/benefit decisions every time they enter an automobile, smoke a cigarette, have a drink, eat fat or enter into a relationship. Governments should help consumers make decisions. Sometimes, as in the 2004 Salmonella cases linked to Roma tomaotes, that means issuing alerts, warnings, and recalls. Sometimes, as in Vancouver's current situation, public health officials must simply be vigilant—and not abdicate their jobs by simply issuing blanket advisories.
Douglas Powell is scientific director and Ben Chapman a doctoral candidate at the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph. The Food Safety Network's national toll-free line for obtaining food safety information is1-866-50-FSNET (1-866-503-7638) and further information is available at < . Visit our blogs at,, and
Powell: 785-317-0560